VSH Volunteers Make A Difference!

Posted on February 21, 2012

This week’s blog was written by VSH volunteer Amanda Roose of Foursquare Family Life Center.

“It has been almost one year since I have been volunteering with VSH, and my life has been messed up in the best of ways because of it. One of the most rewarding things I have gotten to be a part of has been our weekly game nights with the tenants at South Richmond. It’s such a simple thing, bringing games and snacks and sharing stories, but it has opened up friendships that I cannot fathom living without. These aren’t just random people I share a coke with anymore, they are real people with real stories and real hearts, and they matter to me. In my normal routine I would have never passed by my new friends, but stepping out  of my routine and building relationships with them has probably changed my life more than theirs. Last August I was a part of Richmond Registry Week on a survey team. Seeing Richmond’s invisible people firsthand hurt me on many levels, but what gave me hope was that I was doing something to solve this problem. The homeless are more than statistics to me now. They have faces, names, and voices that are aching to be heard.

“Teams from my church have painted the inside and outside of a family’s new home. We have done construction and gardening. We have had pizza and bingo nights. We have shared life and shared hope. We have had Thanksgiving dinner with them and spent Christmas day with them. We have donated house supplies for new tenants moving in. We have been a part of solving homelessness alongside Virginia Supportive Housing. It may not have always been convenient, but it has always been rewarding and worth it. Life is too short to live for myself, so I have resolved to be second, and put others first. I am so grateful for the team at Virginia Supportive Housing who have dedicated their lives to seeing others get a fresh new start, and that they let us be a part of the restoration.”

If you would like to find out more about how to give the gift of your time to VSH, visit our web page or take a look at volunteers in action. Then send an e-mail to [email protected] to attend the next orientation on March 13!

Hopeful, Optimistic….But Also Impatient

Posted on February 15, 2012

Three nights ago, the temperature plunged down into the teens and the wind chill factor was even colder than that. Most of us passed the night in the warmth of our heated homes. But according to Homeward’s most recent Point in Time Count, almost 1000 people in our very own community did not have a home in which to sleep that night and more than 100 were forced to sleep outside in public parks, on fire escapes, and in encampments by the river.

Statewide, more than 9,000 Virginians experienced homelessness that night according to estimates by Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development.  Can you imagine sleeping outdoors in that kind of cold? The truly sad part is that we know how to fix homelessness and a solution is within our reach. It’s called permanent supportive housing.

“Permanent supportive housing works,” states John Dearie, board member with the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, in his recent RTD op/ed piece. “Eighty-five to 100 percent of the tenants in…Virginia’s PSH programs have not returned to homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently identified the emergence of PSH programs as the single most important factor in reducing chronic homelessness in America in recent years.”

Even more important, according to Dearie, is the fact that the permanent supportive housing model delivers dramatic savings to the community. “A 2010 analysis of Virginia Supportive Housing’s A Place to Start initiative showed that the program had dramatically reduced this hopeless and costly cycle [of chronic homelessness], saving the local community $320,000.”

This is really good news because it means that political consensus is possible. At a time when politicians can’t even agree on the color of the sky, Democrats and Republicans are joining forces to support legislation that paves the way for policy amendments, funding, and eventually, new PSH developments.

Dearie goes on to say, “Much more work remains to be done. According to VCEH, another 7,000 PSH units are needed to end homelessness in Virginia. That’s a daunting number, but it can be achieved. And Virginia has already made impressive progress.”

At Virginia Supportive Housing, we are hopeful and optimistic…but we are also impatient.

Hopeful because we know that permanent supportive housing is what solves homelessness and we work toward that solution each and every day.

Optimistic because advocacy for this evidence-based model is slowly but surely growing, both across the state and across the nation.

Impatient because, for the people who are sleeping outside in frigid weather, that solution can’t happen soon enough.

To read John Dearie’s complete op/ed piece, click here.

To read what the National Alliance to End Homelessness has to say about permanent supportive housing, click here.

To find out more about the work of Virginia Supportive Housing, click here.
To support VSH, click here.

Work Harder, Look Deeper

Posted on February 8, 2012

This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.

If you saw this individual standing on a street corner, you might be tempted to avert your eyes and hurry past him, maybe even cross the street to avoid him.

We all tend to do that when we encounter people who appear dishevelled or dirty or just somehow….different. Unpredictable situations make most of us uncomfortable, and we don’t like to feel awkward or stupid, much less threatened.

But as this powerful Tribute to Robert Wood demonstrates, we sometimes ignore the people in our community who seem to exist “on the margins of society” at our own expense and end up missing out on a rare opportunity to be enriched.  

The gentleman pictured here was well-known to the citizens of Kent, Ohio. For many years, he accessed the town’s social services and regularly participated in the hot meals program. In this loving tribute, published on the occasion of Mr. Wood’s death from unspecified causes, Kent Social Services Manager Christie Anderson notes that “perhaps eccentric people are incarnations of God, for they challenge us to look deeper for their divinity….some people, more than others, require us to work harder at extending grace to them because they evoke fear in us.”

Anderson goes on to say, “This is the lesson that I have taken from knowing Robert Wood. He taught me, and others in the Kent community, that we mustn’t be quick to judge another human being. When we take the deliberate steps to set aside our fears of people perceived as different, a world of discovery opens for us. Mutual understanding begins when we lower our defenses and encounter our common humanity.”

Reading this, I was reminded of an encounter I had last week. One of our A Place To Start clients (I’ll call him Kenneth) had expressed an interest in serving as an office volunteer, and last week he gave several hours of his time to help with our move to the new headquarters.

Kenneth is a full-grown man about my age and taller than me. His gaze can sometimes appear unfocused and every time I see him, he seems sweaty and slightly agitated. I remember thinking that his facial expressions seem somehow child-like. Consequently, I felt rather awkward and unsure of how to interact with him. I had to be sure he would perform the tasks he was there to do (dismantle old manuals, carry trash out to the dumpster, shred documents), but at the same time I didn’t want to make assumptions or come across as condescending. 

“Kenneth, you doing okay? Kenneth, how’s it going?” My questions pertained to the work at hand, so I was surprised when, after a trip to the dumpster at the back of our building, he gave me the broadest grin and declared, “Boy, it is such a beautiful day outside, isn’t it?” In fact, I had been too preoccupied with all my to-do lists to notice the weather. With complete sincerity, he went on: “Ahh, it’s just gorgeous, and the breeze feels so nice! It’s a perfect day for a nice long walk!”

A few minutes later, we carried a load of boxes out to the trash together and Kenneth suddenly rushed toward the dumpster. “Oh no, look at that beautiful plant that someone threw out! That’s a little piece of paradise right there!” At that moment, I looked at Kenneth and saw what he truly had to offer for the very first time.

Tom Allen, in his February 5 Faith and Values column, urges us to move beyond competition and the judgment that we all engage in as we compare ourselves and our accomplishments (or failures) to everyone around us. “There’s something very liberating about accepting, and trying to live, the fact that we’re all brothers and sisters, children of God. It frees me to want, and to work for, what’s best for others in my life. It frees me to celebrate their successes, and to love them without jealousy. Most of all, it frees me from the constant strain of having to be ahead of them. I can just be with them, and we can travel together. What a huge relief.”

We tend to dismiss the Kenneths and the Robert Woods of the world because they don’t conform to our standards of what is “normal” and “acceptable” and “successful” and “beautiful.” Kenneth in particular, with his experience of chronic homelessness and his mental illness, can barely manage a few simple responsibilities without close supervision. What could he possibly teach any of us?

Later that day, as I left the office – and every day since – I have made a point of looking up at the sky and the trees and noticing the feeling of the sun and wind on my skin. “You’re right, Kenneth, it’s actually a really nice day.”

If we are only willing to look a little deeper and work a little harder, we will be rewarded with priceless gifts. It is definitely worth the effort.

Make Service A Priority In 2012!

Posted on January 3, 2012

This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.

According to some recent surveys, nearly one out of every two Americans starts the New Year by making at least one resolution. Some common new year’s resolutions include losing weight, getting more exercise, quitting smoking, getting out of debt, saving more money, and going on a trip. It seems that many of us want to feel better about ourselves somehow, and exercising more control over our bodies, finances, and leisure time are three common starting points for trying to achieve that goal.

My new year started with a memorial service.

My deceased brother’s wife’s sister-in-law died of complications from lung & breast cancer at the end of December after battling her illness for more than two years, and so we gathered on January 2nd to celebrate her memory.

The service was very inspiring, as one friend after another stood before the assembly to give testimony concerning Debbe’s great enthusiasm for service to the community. “When our lives are over, how do we really want to be remembered by others?” asked the pastor. “Isn’t the impact that we have on those around us the only thing that truly matters?”  I found myself resolving, right then and there, to ask myself that question every day and make sure that my actions reflected my determination to make service a priority.

There is no shortage out there of people in need of our service, and we need not restrict our idea of service to big grand circumstances. Whether we are among family members or work colleagues, serving our congregations or our less fortunate neighbors, life presents us every day with endless opportunities for kind words, compassionate gestures, consoling embraces, and supportive acts both great and small. But especially the small ones.

Tom Allen, in last Saturday’s Faith & Values column, wrote about a woman “whose life had come to a very precarious place,” someone who was homeless, sick, penniless, and in search of a friend who could help her “begin the difficult process of trying to turn her life around.”  Someone, in other words, just like the people we serve at Virginia Supportive Housing.

The bad news is that this particular story didn’t end well, and the individual died of an apparent self-inflicted drug overdose. When hope and help come too late, that is often the result.

The good news is that VSH offers weekly, monthly, and episodic opportunities for volunteers to bring hope and help to the lives of our formerly homeless clients, so that their stories can have better endings. All you have to do is resolve to make service a priority and then put that resolution into practice one act of service at a time.

I assure you, it’s not as hard or scary as it might sound, and the reward far outweighs the commitment.

During the holidays I experienced a powerful affirmation of why service to our clients matters. A group of tenants and volunteers was hanging decorations at one of our properties, and Christmas music was playing on the little boombox. I noticed that the familiar carols, so comforting & festive for so many of us, seemed to be having a decidedly melancholy effect on one usually cheerful & talkative tenant.

As time went on, she grew quieter and her expression grew sadder. I reached over to lightly touch her shoulder and ask if she was okay, and she abruptly stood up and wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug. We stood like that for a minute, both of us just breathing, before she whispered, “My daughter just hugged me through you, and I can’t thank you enough.” It turns out that her daughter had passed away three years ago at Christmas time under difficult circumstances, and the music was a painful reminder to her of that unbearable loss. As a mother of three daughters, I felt privileged to be able to serve her with such a simple yet profound gesture. And in a similar situation, I could not imagine a more valuable gift.

At the end of his column, Tom Allen concludes that “one of the reasons we’re here is to help each other. We’ve got to keep getting better at it.” I agree, and I’m sure Debbe would too. We can have an impact on the lives of others in 2012. We can be the face of compassion for those who need it most. And our own lives can be blessed in the process. All it takes is a resolution.

How Many More Have To Die?

Posted on December 15, 2011

As you celebrate the holidays in the warmth and comfort of your homes this season, consider this:

57-year-old Billy Clayton of Toms River, NJ was found dead of apparent hypothermia in his makeshift tent last week. 49-year-old Charles Tompkins of Seattle also froze to death. 56-year-old Robert Lester Bunch died of hypothermia in Santa Barbara and was the thirty-first homeless individual to die in that city this year.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH):

“Seven hundred people experiencing or at risk of homelessness are killed from hypothermia annually in the United States. Forty-four percent of the nation’s homeless are unsheltered. From the urban streets of our populated cities to the remote back-country of rural America, hypothermia – or subnormal temperature in the body – remains a leading, critical and preventable cause of injury and death among those experiencing homelessness.”

Each year as winter approaches and the temperatures begin to drop, our country’s homeless population faces the difficult choice of seeking temporary shelter or enduring the bitter cold. On the one hand, shelters lack space & resources during the cold months. Chronically homeless individuals may resist any arrangement that requires them to follow rules or sleep among large groups. Theft of personal belongings is a common complaint. People with mental illness or substance abuse disorders often have difficulty coping in shelter situations. And the underlying causes of their homelessness ultimately are not being adequately addressed.

On the other hand, the average winter temperature in New Jersey is 34 degrees with an average annual snowfall of 23 inches. In Washington State the average temperature in winter is 33 degrees. Although snowfall averages are low in Seattle, it rains an average of 158 days out of the year. And despite Santa Barbara’s relatively mild weather, the past two years have been unusually cold and rainy. When miserable weather conditions are compounded by inadequate clothing, malnutrition, chronic infections, and substance abuse, the susceptibility to hypothermia increases substantially.

Can you imagine being faced with the kinds of choices that homeless individuals have to make every day just to survive?  Virginia Supportive Housing offers a better way. The housing that VSH provides is neither temporary nor transitional. Our tenants sign leases, pay rent, and can stay as long as they wish. And their access to support services allows them to regain their independence and dignity. Don’t we all crave the warmth and comfort that comes from having our own home?

With the onset of winter, hundreds of unsheltered people will die preventable deaths this season. To find out what you can do, click here.

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